Presenteeism - and how to break the culture in your business

Presenteeism. It’s a clear and accelerating trend and cited by some as the biggest threat to workplace productivity in the UK. 

Do your employees turn up for work in spite of illness, or do they work longer hours than necessary - simply because everyone else does? More importantly, as businesses, should we be celebrating the fact that employees are spending more time working or at their desks? 

In this blog article, we look at presenteeism and share our tips on how to break the culture in your business.

11 June 2019

According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), British employees are now working 30 minutes per week more than they did a decade ago. Alongside this, the number of sick days reported is at an all-time low, with figures on a steady decline since 2008.

So are we morphing into a leaner, meaner, healthier workforce? Maybe. Although this view is at odds with the vast army of experts who point to presenteeism as the reason, rather than good health.

This view is supported by the CIPD, who found that more than four-fifths (83%) of its respondents had observed presenteeism in their organisation, with a quarter (25%) stating that the problem had worsened since the previous year. 

Presenteeism versus absenteeism

Given the choice, some employers might actually prefer presenteeism to absenteeism. After all, it’s bums on seats - isn’t that what we all want? If your company was benefiting from presenteeism, that would add some rationale to the argument in favour of it. But it won’t be. And a culture of presenteeism is likely to be damaging your business.

Numerous studies have shown that far from boosting productivity, working longer hours actually reduce output, negatively affect workplace morale and lead to serious long-term health consequences. And whilst it stands to reason that people are less productive when they’re physically unwell, they can also be a hazard to other people, causing a knock-on effect. 

The rise of presenteeism

Whilst the presenteeism phenomenon isn’t new, there’s little doubt that it’s growing. And growing quickly. 

Employers continue to reward presence in the office - perhaps because it’s instantly measurable (even if that employee has spent half the day browsing Facebook). Furthermore, the advent of smartphones and other technology combined with an ‘always on’ culture means that staff members are contactable at any time - evenings, weekends and even whilst they’re on holiday. 

Not only does this erode employees’ work-life balance, but it also promotes and encourages a culture in which those who work longer hours are praised and rewarded over those that do not - regardless of whether they are working effectively. 

Breaking a culture of presenteeism

Breaking a culture of presenteeism isn’t easy - but there are steps you can take to discourage it, from banning staff from eating lunch at their desks to implementing a more radical four day working week.

Firstly you need to take a step back. Have you (albeit unintentionally) created a long hours culture where people are praised and rewarded for working out-of-hours or for longer than necessary? Or are the needs of the business seen as more important than staff morale? Practices that may have started out as habit can quickly spiral into a vicious circle. 

The best way to discourage presenteeism is to make employee well-being a top priority. Management policy affects work culture; so in order to implement change, it needs to be driven from the top down. Make it clear that attendance in the office doesn’t take precedent over quality of work.

Putting in place an effective health management strategy that supports and rewards staff will help encourage a healthy work-life balance. Take steps to encourage regular activity, implement a wellbeing programme and look at whether flexi-time or core hours could work successfully within your business.

Clear policies and procedures around leave should be put in place. Unwell staff should be sent home to recover and flexible working considered in order to support employees going through long-term health difficulties or when dealing with personal or family-related trauma. 

Smart employers measure results, not time in the office. Taking a progressive approach and advocating a healthy work-life balance is good for employees - and good for your business.

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